High-speed rail faces hurdles

By David DeCamp, Times Staff Writer

Published Thursday, March 4, 2010

ORLANDO — High-speed rail trains will be able to ferry passengers from Tampa to Orlando in 56 minutes.

What's less certain is whether officials will be able to keep the project's money, public support and construction on track to start running trains in 2015, its architects said Thursday during a national rail conference in Orlando.

Contractors and consultants at the conference said there are many details to iron out before the first construction bids are issued later this year.

"It's aggressive, don't mistake it," said Richard Palmieri, business development director for the trainmaker Siemens. "But it's doable."

U.S. High Speed Rail, which promotes the lines in America, sponsored the event with 300 attendees near the Orlando Convention Center, site of one of five stations on the route.

President Barack Obama promised $1.25 billion in stimulus money to start the project — about half of what the state requested.

Speaking Thursday, chief executive officer Richard Lawless of the U.S. Japan High Speed Rail company expressed concern about the federal government's long-term commitment to build a high-speed system. If rail doesn't work out in Central Florida, Lawless said, its chances are poor elsewhere.

"We're going to need full funding for the project or we can't move forward," said Nazih Haddad, chief operating officer of the Florida Rail Enterprise, who discounted the chances of lining up private construction financing given the economy.

The state is negotiating with federal rail officials over how to pay for the remaining costs. It's possible that more federal money will come in spurts as the state completes phases of the project, Haddad said.

Ultimately, though, operating the line will require a company, or group of companies, to share some of the risk of ridership and revenue levels, Haddad said.

Based on 2.1 million riders a year with $20 average fares, the Florida Department of Transportation says high speed rail's revenue could pay for its costs. However, even Siemens and other possible contractors are skeptical of those numbers.

The national political mood provides another "cloud," consultants told the audience. As gas prices dipped, so did interest in using rail instead of planes or cars, polling showed. And then there's resistance against government spending — evidenced by a protest of the project staged near the hotel.

Critics say the rail project — and light rail initiatives in Hills­borough and Pinellas counties — is unnecessary spending that doesn't support itself, particularly when governments face cutbacks. Supporters note clogged highways likes Interstate 4 don't raise money either, but trains will alleviate traffic and fumes.

The state likely will begin hiring companies to move utilities and other earth work first, with contracts to be awarded this year. The trains and actual rail system construction would come in 2012, assuming funding is secured.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.


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